The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Isthmus Vocal Ensemble performs two concerts this weekend that honor choral conductor Robert Fountain. Then founder and director Scott MacPherson steps down

August 1, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Even 21 years after his death at 79 in 1996, the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s legendary choral conductor Robert Fountain (below) is spoken of with reverence and awe.

And with good reason, according to many singers and musicians.

The story goes that Fountain was offered a professional performing career, much like his friend Dale Warland enjoyed, but he chose instead to go into academia and teaching.

Fountain’s legacy will be celebrated this weekend with two performances by the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below).

IVE is a summer-only group that has performed for the past 16 years under its founder and artistic director Scott MacPherson (below), who worked at the UW-Madison with Fountain and now directs choral activities at Kent State University.

Performances are this Friday, Aug. 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the High Point Church on the far west side, 7702 Old Sauk Road, and on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 6 at 3 p.m. at Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $10 for students. (Cash or check only will be accepted at Mills Hall.)

Here are some comments that The Ear received from MacPherson:

“These are my final concerts as artistic director with IVE. I am stepping down after 16 years. The IVE Board is in the process of finding a new artistic director and should be able to announce the new person in the coming week or so.

“It is the centennial of my mentor and former UW colleague Robert Fountain’s birth, so I have chosen to honor him with a tribute for my final concerts with IVE.

“Robert Fountain: A Choral Legacy” is a concert programmed as he would have programmed with his UW Concert Choir.

“Music from the Renaissance to living composers and everything in between will be featured. Many of my singers sang under his direction at one time or another. Some are even travelling from out of state to participate.”

“The composers represented include Johann Sebastian Bach, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Randall Thompson, Pavel Chesnokov, Gyorgy Ligeti, Andrew Rindfleisch and a spiritual arranged by Fountain.”

(IVE will perform Chesnokov’s “Salvation Is Created,” which you can hear sung by the Dale Warland Singers in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For the complete program, plus links to ticket information and purchases, go to:

https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/upcoming-performances

For more information about the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble and about Scott MacPherson, go to:

https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org


Classical music: The second week of programs by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society offers vocal and instrumental music that spans four centuries and includes a world premiere

June 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last weekend, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society opened its 26th season with two programs in three venues that all proved highly successful.

Building on that success, the chamber music festival with top local and guest performers, now turns to vocal and instrumental music that ranges from the late 18th century up to today, including a world premiere.

As usual, the BDDS venues are suitably intimate for chamber music: The Playhouse (below top) at the Overture Center at 201 State St.; the jewel box historic Stoughton Opera House (below middle) at 381 East Main St.; and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hillside Theater (below bottom) at Taliesin on County Highway 23 in Spring Green.

Concerts are spiked with stories about the music, mystery guests and even door prizes.

This season’s theme is Alphabet Soup, because it’s BDDS’ 26th year and there are 26 letters in the alphabet. Each program is named after a combination of letters used in everyday language. Sometimes the musical interpretation of those letters is literal and sometimes it’s quite loose.

The second weekend of concerts features the San Francisco Piano Trio (below) Axel Strauss, violin; Jean-Michel Fonteneau, cello; and Jeffrey Sykes, piano).

They are joined by UW-Madison’s pianist Christopher Taylor, soprano Emily Birsan (another Madison favorite and a graduate of the UW-Madison and Lyric Opera of Chicago) and internationally acclaimed clarinetist Alan Kay.

TWO PROGRAMS

Two Bs or not Two Bs includes evocative songs by Maurice Ravel for soprano, flute, cello and piano and an entertaining bouquet of earthy cabaret songs by composers Benjamin Britten, William Bolcom and Arnold Schoenberg, sung by Emily Birsan.

The program also features Bela Bartok’s “Contrasts” for clarinet, violin and piano, a work commissioned by the legendary jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman (below), and Johannes Brahms’ epic Piano Trio in C Major, Op. 87. (You can hear a historic recording of Benny Goodman performing the Bartok work, with the composer playing the piano, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Two Bs or not Two Bs will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center for the Arts, on Friday, June 16, 7:30 p.m., and at the Hillside Theater, Taliesin, Spring Green, on Sunday, June 18, 2:30 p.m.


Special K is a showcase for Alan Kay, principal clarinetist of the renowned Orpheus Chamber Ensemble.

It includes “The Shepherd on the Rock” for soprano, clarinet and piano by Franz Schubert; the hip tour-de-force “Techno Parade” by Guillaume Conneson (below) for flute, clarinet and piano; and the Midwest premiere of “Living Frescoes” for clarinet, violin, cello and piano by American composer Kevin Puts.

Many will remember that Kevin Puts (below) was the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer BDDS commissioned for the song cycle “In At The Eye” in its 25th season last summer.

The program is rounded out with Mozart’s Piano Trio in E Major and three songs by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (below) sung by Emily Birsan, accompanied by Jeffrey Sykes.

Special K will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center for the Arts, on Saturday, June 17, 7:30 p.m., and at the Hillside Theater, Taliesin, in Spring Green, on Sunday, June 18, 6:30 p.m.

Photos by Dick Ainsworth of BDDS performances and behind-the-scenes will be on exhibit in The Playhouse through Sunday, July 9.

Single general admission tickets are $43. Student tickets are always $10.

For tickets visit: http://www.overture.org/events/bach-dancing

For more information about the programs, performers, performances and background, visit www.bachdancinganddynamite.org or call (608) 255-9866.

Tickets can also be purchased at Overture Center for the Arts, (608) 258-4141, www.overturecenter.org (additional fees apply).

Tickets are also available at the door at all locations.


Classical music: Early music group Eliza’s Toyes offers a fascinating exploration of the role of music in medicine from Medieval though Baroque times.

May 24, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker, who also took the performance photos. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Eliza’s Toyes (below top), the consort of voices and instruments devoted to early music, is led by the formidably talented Jerry Hui. The group gave another of its imaginative programs, this time on Friday night at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (below bottom).

eliza's toyes 2015

WID_extr11_1570

The theme and title of this program was “Music: The Miracle Medicine.” Offered were 15 selections, conveying various ideas or beliefs about health (both physical and spiritual), illness, medicine, miracle cures and good living.

Toyes medicine motet JWB

Each selection was preceded by the reading of passages from moral and medical texts of various periods. (I wonder if today’s medical and health-advice writings will sound as comical generations from now as do those of the past to us!)

Toyes medicine physician JWB

Fifteen composers were represented in the course of the program, from Medieval through Baroque: Hildegard von Bingen (below top, 1098-1179), Alfonso El Sabio (1221-1284), Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), Cipriano da Rore (1516-1565),Hubert Waelrant (1515-1595), Orlando di Lassus (1532-1594), William Byrd (1540-1623), Lelio Bertani (1553-1612), John Wilbye (1574-1638), Gabriel Bataille (1575-1630), Melchior Franck (1579-1639), John Maynard (15??-16??), Anonymous 17th-Century (2 items), Marin Marais (1656-1728) and John Eccles (1668-1735).

ST. HILDEGARD OF BINGEN DEPICTED IN ALTARPIECE AT ROCHUSKAPELLE IN GERMANY

The selections were mostly vocal, either solo or ensemble. One instrumental selection stood out as probably the one most likely to be familiar: Marin Marais’ excruciatingly detailed “Representation of the Operation for Gallstone” (below top is Marais, below bottom is the introduction to his work) — complete with narrative headings for each section. (You can hear the narration and the music to the unusual piece in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Marin Marais 2

Toyes medicine Marais operation JWB

The performances were earnest and often accomplished. But it must be said in honesty that, in motets and madrigals, the vocal ensemble was not balanced or smooth — the singers clearly need to live with this kind of musical writing somewhat longer. Still, the overall effect was certainly entertaining and thematically fascinating.

Toyes medicine motet 2 JWB

There were no printed programs, but the titles and text translations were projected on a background screen. These projections were fully visible and readable, so they worked well.

Toyes medicine projection JWB

This is a program that will be offered again, I understand, at the Chazen Museum of Art on July 15, so that it can be caught and savored once more.

Above all, it is one more tribute to the thoughtful, deeply researched and intriguing program skills of Jerry Hui (below).

Jerry Hui

 


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